A few years ago, a couple in their early 30s -- both sales managers -- made a hasty decision to buy a contemporary condo in downtown San Diego. They were captivated by the apartment's stunning views and sweeping "entertainers balcony."
But once the couple's first child was born, the condo proved an awkward and disappointing choice. Recently, they put the place up for sale. Looking back, they wish they'd been more thoughtful about their buying decision and picked a place better-suited for the family they intended to have.
Their story illustrates how a hurried housing selection -- especially when it involves a condo -- can sometimes prove a disheartening choice.
"In particular, first-time homebuyers need to thoughtfully consider the implications of choosing any property, but particularly a condo. It's only human nature, but some buyers fail to think ahead for their future needs," says Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and co-author of "Home Buying for Dummies."
Of course, no matter the housing style you choose -- whether a condo, a townhouse or a traditional, detached property -- that choice can affect your lifestyle in major ways. But Tyson says those who've never before lived in a condo should be especially cautious about buying one.
"There's a much bigger pool of buyers for traditional family houses," he says.
Leo Berard, charter president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (www.naeba.org), says for some categories of purchasers, a condo could be the ideal choice.
"Older buyers who no longer have children at home often relish the low-maintenance requirements of condo living because most condo communities take care of all exterior maintenance. That liberates them from a lot of upkeep and frees their time for travel or hobbies," Berard says.
Another category of buyers who could enjoy condo living are young to middle-aged purchasers who don't intend to have children and who seek an urban lifestyle in an area where it's possible to walk to restaurants, entertainment venues and public transportation.
"Living in a vital urban setting -- in a condo or rental apartment -- is very popular with an increasing number of buyers in their 20s through 50s and beyond," Berard says.
Are you considering a condo? If so, you may wish to ask yourself these questions before you go through with a deal:
-- Would a condo prove a practical, comfortable housing choice for you?
People planning to sell a detached house in favor of a condo should anticipate major life changes, Tyson says.
For example, condo residents -- and their visitors -- typically face more limits on parking. Maybe you and your spouse will receive just one parking space in an underground garage or outdoor lot. That could be acceptable to a single person who travels frequently for work, but it could be troublesome for a couple who love to throw parties.
If you enjoy gardening, condo living could cost you the chance to cultivate your own plot. But if you dislike yard work, freedom from pruning and mowing could give you the extra free time you seek to pursue other interests.
Another factor Tyson says potential condo buyers should consider is the availability of storage space. Although a recently built condo is likely to have larger closets than an older one, a detached house will probably have still more storage room, if only in the attic or garage.
-- Is now the right time to buy a condo in your area?
Tyson says many first-time buyers view a condo purchase as a way to obtain housing at a lower cost per square foot than if they were to buy a freestanding house. But that assumption may or may not hold true, depending on property valuation trends in your area.
"Land costs are high and rising in most metro areas. Therefore, it makes sense that buying a condo -- which doesn't come with land -- should give you more living space for the money than a single family house," Tyson says.
But there are some obvious exceptions. For instance, a luxury apartment in a ritzy section of Manhattan or inside Chicago's Loop would undoubtedly be more expensive on a per-square-foot basis than a house in most suburbs, even upscale ones.
However, Tyson cautions against making blanket assumptions about comparative housing costs without first asking your real estate agent to give you data on recent sale prices in the communities where you're looking.
"You'll want final sales prices for transactions involving like units that occurred no longer than six months ago, unless your market has been extremely stable," he says.
-- Are the condo fees reasonable for the complex you're considering?
Berard says monthly condo fees bear close scrutiny.
"If the fees are very high, that could mean management of the building is not effective in holding down routine building expenses. But low fees could mean upkeep costs are being deferred, which could make future owners vulnerable to steep 'special assessments,'" he says.
To get a feel for the quality of management of a condo building, Berard suggests you ask to attend a meeting of the condo association's board. Alternatively, try to obtain copies of minutes from recent board meetings.
-- Would living close to neighbors be a plus or minus for you?
Tyson says people vary widely in their level of comfort with condo living. Those who grew up in a suburban or rural area with a lot of land around their property may dislike the smell of cooking from a stranger's condo down the hallway. Yet people raised in an apartment building might be at ease in such a setting.
If you worry you might be uncomfortable living in a particular condo complex, you could do well to test these assumptions by taking a short-term rental within the same complex.
"Renting a condo for even a few months could give you all the information you need to make a sound decision about buying in that complex," Tyson says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at email@example.com.)